Jeffery Polet at Front Porch Republic offers commentary on presentations at Notre Dame’s Center for the Study of Ethics and Culture, held November 12-14. He offers, in particular, a summary of a paper by Shawn Floyd of Malone University on the issue of character formation in higher education.
What we do not call education is more precious than that which we call so.—Emerson, 1847.
Holland, MI. I heard many fine presentations at Notre Dame’s Center for the Study of Ethics and Culture from November 12-14, and one in particular that piqued my interest was delivered by Shawn Floyd of Malone University. Floyd addressed the issue of character formation in higher education, offering his paper up as a rebuttal to the likes of Stanley Fish and Gilbert Meilaender, both of whom offer variations of the argument that universities neither can nor should engage in the practice of forming the moral character of their students.
The argument against character formation can be summed up as follows: there are no pedagogical means available to accomplish such formation, and no evaluative means by which we could know if we have done so successfully. For Fish (Save the World on Your Own Time), making the attempt to engage in moral formation only distracts us from the job at hand, simply developing a student’s analytical skills and introducing her to a tradition of inquiry. Attempting to do more than this brings us too much into the realms of indeterminacy and contingency. Meilaender’s argument (made in the November 2008 issue of First Things) brings liberal solutions to academic problems. Given the pervasive levels of disagreement among university professors, and the concomitant problems of distrust, professors should agree not to make experiments out of one another’s children. As a father with two children in college, I confess to having great sympathy for this point of view. I’ll agree not to try to form the character of your kids if you agree not to do it to mine. All bets are off if, like Martha Nussbaum, we consider education to be essentially an act of patricide.
A tip o’ the hat to Front Porch Republic.